DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A Sudanese cargo plane crashed shortly after takeoff Wednesday from Sharjah airport near Dubai, killing at least six crew members.
The Boeing 707 operated by Sudan Airways went down in unpopulated desert about two miles north of the airport, said Sheik Khalid al-Qassimi, director of the Sharjah department of civil aviation. He said there were no survivors among the six crew members aboard.
Sudan's official SUNA news agency quoted an unnamed official from the airline as saying seven crew members were killed. The discrepancy in the toll could not immediately be reconciled.
As night fell, the cause of the crash remained unclear. The "black box" flight recorders that should contain information about the flights have been recovered, al-Qassimi said.
Witnesses described seeing the plane swing sharply to the right shortly after takeoff as it struggled to gain altitude.
"We saw it taking off at quite a low level. The nose was quite high. Higher than normal," said Bill Buchanan, a Dubai resident who was playing golf nearby. "It veered to the right, then nosed down straight into the desert. There was a huge ball of fire and smoke."
The wreckage was spread over a wide area near the Sharjah Golf & Shooting Club. Little of the plane remained intact.
A tower of black smoke poured hundreds of feet into the air immediately after the crash, said Martin Duff, who was in his office at the golf academy when he heard a loud jet pass by overhead.
"A couple of seconds later there was a big bang, and the whole ground shuddered," he said. He rushed to the scene, about 50 yards away. "By the time I got there, it was nothing but burnt black wreckage."
Local TV station Sharjah Television showed firefighters later hosing down smoldering pieces of debris at the crash site. Plumes of gray smoke rose high into the air.
A large chunk of the plane's wing was seen amid smaller metal pieces. Rescue workers with face masks carried away stretchers covered with white sheets.
At sundown, crash investigators were working under flood lights as pieces of debris continued to smolder.
Officials said the flight was operated by Sudan Airways and was bound for the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
The plane itself, however, was owned by a private Sudan-based company, Azza Transport, according to SUNA and a spokesman for the Sudan Civil Aviation Authority, Abdel Hafez Abdel Rahim.
Efforts to reach Sudan Airways and Azza were unsuccessful.
Issam Awad, the Sudanese consul in Dubai, told AP Television News that the plane's pilot and co-pilot were from Sudan Airways, while four other crew members worked for Azza.
The four-engine Boeing 707 is an older model airplane that was primarily in use during the 1960s and 1970s.
The airport is located southeast of central Sharjah, a teeming city bordering Dubai that is home to many low-wage workers in the Middle East business hub.
It was once one of the main airports in the lower Gulf, but has long since been eclipsed by Dubai's growing airport. Dubai International Airport, the Middle East's busiest, is located about 10 miles southwest of Sharjah airport.
Sharjah's airstrip is primarily used for cargo flights and by low-cost carriers. Air Arabia, the Mideast's biggest budget airline, is based at the airport.
The airport handles at least 1,800 aircraft and some 100,000 passengers every month, according to its Web site.
In February 2004, an Iranian plane crashed as it approached Sharjah airport on its way from the Iranian island of Kish in the Persian Gulf. More than 40 people, most of them migrant workers, were killed when the Kish Air Fokker-50 went down.
Sudan, Africa's largest country, has a poor aviation safety record and many small airlines crisscross its sprawling terrain.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in June fired the chief of the country's Civil Aviation Authority, Gen. Abu Bakar Gaafar, and banned Russian-made cargo planes from operating in Sudan's civil aviation, according to SUNA.